Film review: ‘Wolf’ offers a lesson in empathy

George MacKay shines as the sinewy, howling title character


Let’s just get this out of the way at the beginning: “Wolf” is a very odd movie. But it’s also touching — a lesson in empathy.

Writer/director Nathalie Biancheri takes a look at people with species dysphoria, a condition where a person thinks he or she has an animal essence that has been trapped in a human body.

George MacKay, the British actor who soared in the World War I film “1917” from director Sam Mendes, stars as Jacob, who thinks he’s a wolf. His parents have brought him to a treatment center after they discover that he has been running around on all fours, naked, in the woods.

In a scene reminiscent of “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest,” Jacob soon meets his fellow patients who identify, variously, as a horse, a squirrel, a bird and a dog. Naturally, the dog is eager to please. He’s played with heartbreaking intensity by Fionn O’Shea.

But the standout in the motley crew is Wildcat (Lily-Rose Depp), who seems to have been at the treatment center since an early age and who has a protector in one of the counselors (Eileen Walsh). Before long, Wildcat and Wolf are sniffing at each other. And yes, this is so high-concept and so out there that you might cynically dismiss these scenes as trite acting workshops.

MacKay, however, is no trite actor. Nor is Depp. Both of them fully commit to their roles, and they’re quite remarkable. When MacKay assumes his wolf persona, he’s fabulously sinewy, crawling with his hands cupped like they are feet, letting out growls and howls with ferocity. Wildcat, meanwhile, slinks around, showing Wolf the inside workings of the treatment center since she has a set of keys.

As with “Cuckoo’s Nest,” there’s a Nurse Ratched in the mix. He’s the Zookeeper (Paddy Considine), and he has two faces — a kindly one for the visiting parents and a brutal one for the patients.

The Zookeeper is nothing short of sadistic. He mocks a young man who thinks he’s a squirrel and insists that he try to climb a tree using only his fingernails, with excruciating results. He also dares a female patient who thinks she’s a bird to jump from a second-floor window at the center.

Amid all the meanness, it’s somewhat inspiring that the various patients have empathy for each other. The obvious irony is that those who think they are animals are far more humane than those who think they’re human.

“Wolf” isn’t perfect, and it requires a lot of willingness from the audience to accept absurd situations. But if you have empathy, it can be quite rewarding.

“Wolf” opens in theaters Dec. 3

Charles Ealy
Charles Ealy
Charles Ealy is a former movies editor for The Dallas Morning News and Austin American-Statesman.

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